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Outback Barracks: an experiment in prefabrication optimizes orientation and shade to reduce artificial cooling needs.

Townsville is one of Australia's largest military ports, strategically located to command the Coral Sea. In the tropics, well north of Brisbane, the town has a relatively rainless but nonetheless humid climate, largely shielded by mountains from tropical downpours further north and west. Just south of the town, Lavarack Barracks are the home of the Third Brigade, the army's rapid deployment force. New approaches to soldiering, brought about partly by increased recruitment of women, and by the need to retain soldiers in a competitive labour market, have caused a need for redevelopment of the barracks, which were originally built by American military engineers during the Vietnam war in the '60s.

The main aim of the new work has been to give each inhabitant a sense of personal place, while maintaining physical notions of the group, and beyond that of the brigade as a whole. In generating the new buildings, much was learned by the architects (Bligh Voller Nield working with Troppo) from the existing structures, for instance use of steel-framed prefabricated construction, deep roof overhangs, light-coloured steel cladding, narrow plans to encourage through ventilation and generally north-south orientation to conserve energy.

Main differences between new and old include giving each inhabitant at least a private room with a bathroom and an often generous balcony. Such units are formed into two- and three-storey blocks clustered round courts in which existing trees are preserved. Views to Mount Stewart to the south and to Castle Hill to the north are preserved and framed.

Prefabrication was an overriding preoccupation to contain costs, increase building speed by reducing wet-season delays and to provide good finishes. Most buildings on site were erected by crane with no scaffolding. Acoustic and fire separation, and a degree of thermal stability, are provided by precast concrete party floor and wall units bolted together (wall elements were formed using the tilt-up process). External walls are framed in lightweight steel with corrugated metal or plywood panels, some of which are brightly coloured to add a sense of individuality and location--for the same reason, panels are sometimes formed of natural timber. Further particularity is given by adding a variety of prefabricated galvanized steel and hardwood stairs, balustrades and sun-shading devices, all of which to some degree recall the tin and timber domestic rural architecture of tropical Queensland.

More than 1000 individual units have been provided in stage two of the redevelopment. The courts formed by the living units are grouped into what the architects call three 'precincts', sited to maximize the cooling effects of prevailing site breezes and make the most of natural site features. Each precinct has a mess located on Robert Towns Boulevard, the main east-west-axis of the whole camp. Messes are used by all ranks, but traditional differences between officers, senior NCOs and other ranks are retained, with separate entrances, eating and drinking spaces and finishes, so the apparently democratic atmosphere generated by the living and sleeping accommodation is not as all-pervasive as it seems initially.

Nonetheless, the messes are much more open and approachable than many buildings of their type, just as the barrack blocks themselves are radically different from traditional eighteenth-century institutional dormitories. Within the constraints of army life, the barracks are as inventive as they are in economically and constructively dealing with the hot and humid climate. E. M.



Bligh Voller Nield with Troppo Architects (Qid)

Project director

Phillip Tait

Design directors

Shane Thompson, Phil Harris

Project architects

Jon Florence, Andrew Bock

Project team

Chris Bligh, Geoff Clark, Sonia Graham, Paul Baker, Greg James, Michael O'Brien, James Russell, Rob Vider, Sacha Cothran, Prue Langer, James Peet, Carolyn Biasi
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Title Annotation:Townsville, Australia
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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